Alternative Education: Literature Review and Report on Key Informants' Experiences

Publication Details

The overall purpose of this research was to collect a range of information about indicators of good practice and quality outcomes in alternative education programmes. The key areas the report addresses include the following: identification of the critical success factors/indicators of success in alternative education programmes; hallmarks of quality programmes and quality alternative education providers; and identification of what constitutes successful outcomes in alternative education programmes.

Author(s): Patricia O'Brien, Avril Thesing and Paul Herbert, Auckland College of Education. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2006

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Executive Summary

The aims of this study were fourfold: to determine the indicators of successful alternative education programmes/providers, consider the hallmarks of quality, and successful outcome, as well as to investigate the experiences of principals/schools with different providers. This report combines the results of a literature review documenting quality indicators, as well as an exploratory study.

Under the alternative education policy, the Ministry of Education provides funding for education programmes for young people, aged 13 to 15 years, who have become alienated from school.The criteria for young people being placed on an alternative education programme include that the young person has:

The project was conducted in three areas of New Zealand: a North Island city, a provincial town and a South Island city. The study design included conducting three initial focus groups, as well as a more generalised telephone survey. Initially a literature review was used to inform themes in alternative education provision. These were developed into a schedule of enquiry areas for focus group discussion. Participants in these groups were representative of Alternative Education Consortium Providers. They were invited to share their views regarding effective provision of alternative education programmes. The three focus groups were held across the localities indicated above. A list of quality indicators was developed from these groups which formed the basis of a telephone survey. This extended generalisation of the focus group data, by telephone interviewing a wider audience in the same geographic areas.

The results of the study strongly reflected the international review of literature. Alternative education for alienated students is seen as the response to a global problem, that the system of public education is failing to meet the challenge of demographic and social change, and children are unprepared for the workplace (Glasser, 1992). Provision to meet the needs of these students has frequently developed out of community initiatives which are responsive to specific local requirements, any attempts at standardisation are seen as counter to effective programmes.

The major question posed by the study was, what do effective worthwhile programmes look like? Although complex, consensus was reached by most providers that there are five areas associated with effective provision. These areas also confirmed in the research literature are:

  1. The place where the programme operates
  2. The students
  3. The students' families
  4. The programme curriculum
  5. The programme providers

Each of these aspects are now summarised below:

1. The Place where the Programme Operates

Quality programmes need to be in compact settings that are unlike school. They may be conducted indoors or out, and students feel a sense of programme ownership because in the small group their voice is heard. A sense of emotional security is engendered, and their personal interests are reflected in the programme and the room décor. These features encourage improved attendance and socially acceptable behaviour that are at the basis of effective alternative education programmes.

2. The Students

The students are supported to make a commitment to the programme, and an attempt is made in quality provision to value students' achievements and recognise the difficulties of the adolescent life-stage, by encouraging peer support, and conditions to promote self esteem.

3. The Students' Families

Students' families are perceived as very important in terms of reinforcing the programme at home and partnership with programme providers. Whilst family disruption may also be contributory to student failure, the importance of trying to build a relationship with the family for the benefits which can accrue is a first priority for alternative educators.

4. The Programme Curriculum

Effective alternative programmes offer more individualised curriculum support than the mainstream. They deliver literacy, numeracy and other areas of content knowledge, as information required by students in real life situations in order to maximise learning opportunities rather than presentation in "subject packages." Diagnostic assessment is important to provide guidance in planning individualised programmes.

5. The Programme Providers

There is a team of providers, which is most effective when it operates collaboratively, providing support for team members as well as for students. Team members are involved in a multidisciplinary approach of providing health, educational, social and emotional support for students. Alternative educators need to develop warm relationships with their students, as well as helping them with basic life needs. There is evidence to suggest that initial recruitment for the role is often on personal attributes that need to be promptly supported by appropriate training in behaviour management, counselling and special needs. The importance of having trained teachers who have a professional approach to education must be emphasised. However it is recommended that pre-service teacher training is supplemented by specialist courses.

The following is a list of indicators using the above categories, which describe the main components of quality provision in more detail. These were developed as a result of the accumulation of information from Focus Groups and verified in the Telephone Survey.

Quality Indicators of Alterantive Education Programmes What does a quality Education Programme look like?

Quality education programmes have characteristics that can be described according to the following aspects:

  1. The place where the programme operates
  2. The students
  3. The students' families
  4. The programme curriculum
  5. The programme providers
1. The Place where the Programme Operates:
"Very Important"
  • is welcoming and emotionally safe with social barriers removed.
  • has clear guidelines and organisational structures which are adhered to.
  • gives students choice, and ownership.
  • is unlike school, informal, and "like home."
  • has well distributed, and equitable funding for resources.
2. The Students in the Programme:
"Very Important"
  • maintain attendance and commitment to the programme
  • have their achievements and success valued which boosts self-esteem.
  • are viewed as individuals, but at the complex lifestage of adolescence with peer group issues and social relationships requiring support.
  • who have been offending have these incidents and convictions noticeably reduced.
3. The Students' Families:
"Very Important"
  • receive modelling behaviour from staff which values students' endeavours, as well as newsletters home, feedback, interviews, and work displayed.
  • Have a partnership with providers to support the student, and reinforce and enhance learning.
  • whatever their structure or circumstances enjoy a relationship with programme providers.
  • receive support by identification and communication with a key member.
  • are themselves benefiting from the programme by learning parenting skills and experiencing personal growth, as well as encouraging students by their involvement and interest.
4. The Programme Curriculum:
"Very Important"
  • ensures that a hierarchy of needs is firstly addressed so that students are ready to learn.
  • uses diagnostic assessment to plan programmes that set individual realistic goals, so that students who do achieve are encouraged, rewarded, and extended.
  • includes a range of supporting subjects that integrate literacy and numeracy. Examples include: lifeskills, wellbeing, nutrition, cooking, physical health, science and technology, geography, oral learning, whakapapa, problem solving, stress reduction, conflict resolution, behaviour management, communication skills, anger management, drama, performing arts, art and craft, and music, work station skills, gym, and sports.
  • uses informal group teaching methods with reduced social barriers.
  • uses very small groupings of students, and individual attention.
  • is flexible, proceeding at a slower pace, with timetables that allow immediate dealing with problems, informal discussion.
  • ensures activities are varied, and changing constantly both outdoor and indoor, using management school, community and, regional facilities in order that
  • students are not disadvantaged by having less opportunity with fewer resources resulting in a reduced curriculum.
  • there are routines, and secure boundaries with regard to the structure of the day
  • ensures cultural issues are addressed, both with regard to learning styles, with teachers who share the student's ethnicity, as well as the culture of locality.
  • ensures safety management procedures are followed.
"Very Important"
  • ensures literacy and numeracy, are crucial aspects, taught in authentic contexts.
  • includes challenging activities which build success and confidence, and help students take ownership, particularly regional activities, kayaking, tramping, climbing, caving, mountain biking, high ropes, team sports/activities with other programme groups or management/consortium schools for team work.
  • ensures there are good transitions between the mainstream and the programme as well as from the programme into the workforce.
5. The Providers of the Programme:
"Very Important"
  • are well supported by principal/co-ordinators and specialist teachers as well as community services (health, police, judicial, youth aid professionals), such that a network of colleagues, is in communication daily, providing for student needs and reducing staff stress.
  • are a team with different roles comprising trained teachers supported by alternative educators (members of the particular community who are student mentors and role models.
  • have close, warm, supportive, relationships with students as well as advocating for them.
  • are ideally not only trained teachers but have extra curricular training because their teaching role is qualitatively different on a daily basis. This would encompass such knowledge as conflict resolution, medication, special needs, management of staff, counselling, and behaviour management.
  • will all have effective self management skills, and particular personal attributes of enthusiasm, passion, patience, sense of humour, emotional stability (able to detach from work), creative, and versatile with dedication, vocation, commitment, and are appropriate role models.
  • are trained teachers, their role being providing pedagogical and curriculum expertise, professional supervision, and advisory expertise.
  • are not all trained teachers. They are tutors/alternative educators. Their role is (with trained teacher support) to engage with students daily, rapidly develop good relationships with them, taking care of their meals, transport, personal problems, family issues, and "hanging out" after class. (These staff may be originally recruited as having shared similar backgrounds, or gang affiliation, and have current network knowledge of their students. Ideally they will be empathetic, energetic and enthusiastic with a vocation for working with wayward youth. In quality programmes they will be inservice trained for their particular role which will include risk management, drug intervention, medication, special needs and behaviour management.
  • will ensure specialist staff who routinely deliver literacy or numeracy programmes are supported by regular staff in their delivery to ensure safety and behaviour management support.
  • ensure the male female gender mix of staff fits group needs.
  • expect continued Government policy support and recognition of their work in pay parity with secondary teacher salaries, where qualifications match.

In summary, quality education programmes need to be entirely attuned to the individual student, by an immediate assessment of needs, and a supportive environment that will re-engage the student with learning. Whilst alternative education programmes should be accountable and afford the very highest level of professionalism, they cannot be standardised. This would run counter to meeting the criteria laid down by the quality indicators.

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